Jacinda Ardern, the 42-year-old prime minister of New Zealand, shocked her country and political elites worldwide by announcing Thursday that she will not continue in the role. The country will move forward with elections in October without her at the head of the ticket.
“I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple,” she said.
It’s never been that simple for women in leadership, let alone for Ardern, the youngest female prime minister in the world when she was first elected in 2017. Of the many challenges she managed in her tenure and listed in her announcement — “an agenda focused on housing, child poverty and climate change, we encountered a … domestic terror event, a major natural disaster, a global pandemic, and an economic crisis” — she did not even mention the fact that she gave birth to a daughter while serving as head of state. New moms at any level in the workplace know to disappear the word “baby” from any discussion of job performance or career stamina.
In fact, Ardern’s 5 1/2 year tenure is already longer than the time spent in office by 10 American presidents, all men, who tried and failed to secure a second term in office. Former President Donald Trump is still trying to get back in power at the age of 76. This continued pursuit of power is expected in our politics.
Hillary Clinton, now 75, gave us a 20-year version of female leadership from the time she became a senator in her 50s, continuing through her pursuit of the presidency. She was dogged, unflinching in the face of decades of criticism (despite credibility) and rejection (despite readiness). She persisted. And other working women followed suit.
Ardern brought a new model of leadership. Not simply in the way that, as sociologists, political scientists and business leaders have concluded, men and women lead differently — with men putting themselves first to compete for the top spot while women are more collaborative, the latter of which gets teams motivated to perform better overall. Ardern knows how to connect with her constituents, in line with Harvard Business Review's recommendations to aspiring leaders: “Don’t command, empathize... Twenty-first century leadership demands that leaders establish an emotional connection with their followers… Men can learn a lot about how to do this effectively by watching and emulating women.”
The pitfall of emotion, of openly caring, is one many women in power and the public eye have carefully avoided. Pat Schroeder cried in 1987 when she announced she would not seek the Democratic Party nomination and newspapers everywhere pasted photos of her face “so screwed up with emotion she looked like a Cabbage Patch doll.” It’s a lesson passed on from the first-wave feminists of the 1960s to millennial women now making their way through the C-suites: Don’t make the rest of us look bad.
While “research shows that the prevalence of male senior leaders is not a product of superior leadership talent in men,” per HBR, perception and reality don’t match up. Masculine expressions of power still dominate the discourse despite ample evidence it doesn’t lead to better group outcomes. As one research psychologist put so succinctly: “Overinflated claims of gender differences carry substantial costs in areas such as the workplace and relationships.” Crying, unless you’re former Speaker John Boehner, is not for people in power. Empathy, caring, kindness have simply not been the first traits we seek in an American commander in chief.
Yet the traits we’ve been socially and politically trained to reject are exactly what Arden wants to be remembered for by the people of her country: “As someone who always tried to be kind.”
Her political opposition gave her credit for all of it, making “a significant contribution to New Zealand, in what is a difficult and demanding job.” Opposition National Party Christopher Luxon called her a “strong ambassador for New Zealand on the world stage. Her leadership in the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attacks was simultaneously strong and compassionate, and is something she can be proud of.”
In rejecting the pursuit of power for the sake of power, Ardern pulled the ultimate female power move so many of us dream of, the global high-stakes manifestation of what comedian Ali Wong expressed when she said, “I don’t want to lean in. I want to lie down.”
This was Ardern’s version of rejecting a pursuit of power: “We give all that we can for as long as we can, and then it’s time.”
It’s the same power move pulled by another storied leader, who also helped chart a new path forward under a new paradigm of leadership: George Washington.